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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Waiting on the law to change? A critical geographic analysis of water law reform in British Columbia McFarlane, Kiely


The overuse and pollution of freshwaters due to under-regulation is a growing concern worldwide, prompting reform of existing water laws and governance institutions. Reforms seek to provide for ecosystem and community needs, empower governance agencies, address environmental injustices, and ensure the sustainable use of freshwater resources in contexts of increased hydrological uncertainty. However, the failure of previous reforms has generated scepticism over the efficacy of law as a mechanism to drive necessary changes in freshwater governance. This dissertation employs a critical geographic lens to examine the potential for water law reform to advance the equitable and sustainable governance of freshwater in British Columbia, Canada. Specifically, it traces how the transformative potential of BC’s new Water Sustainability Act (WSA) is configured through processes of legislation development, its settler colonial history, and implementation pathways. Chapter Two examines how participatory legislation development processes influenced the scope and content of the WSA. Comparison of submissions and legislative outcomes highlights that while consultation processes are intended to promote democratic law reform, they can also serve to fortify elite influence. Chapter Three explores the outcomes of settler colonial water law for BC First Nations, using historical and current water rights data. Past laws and licensing processes are revealed to have contributed to significant water insecurity for First Nations, underscoring the injustice enacted through exclusion of Indigenous water rights from legal reforms. Chapter Four appraises the WSA’s structure and proposed implementation, identifying key sources of uncertainty in reform outcomes. Interviews indicate that while BC’s flexible, enabling approach creates opportunities to address place-specific issues, outcomes remain dependent on political will and governance resourcing. Together, the chapters demonstrate that while ‘modern’ law can improve the tools available for water management, transformative change requires a more fundamental overhaul of existing systems of water rights and law.

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